It is human nature to minimise the peril that seems passed. The town, so recently roused out of despair, indulged an exaggerated confidence. From The Great Plague In London In 1665 by W.G. Bell, 1924.
It feels strange to be constantly living through history, one preposterous event following another in quick succession. A bit like being Chris Morris’s reporter in On The Hour, ‘… standing next to the hole out of which the events are emerging.’ Yesterday was something called ‘Freedom Day’ which, in true British fashion, turned out to be something of a fiasco: a queasy admixture of nervous hedonism, ongoing grievance and hubris. We were, thankfully, spared Boris Johnson’s planned ‘Victory Day’ speech as he was forced into reluctant self-isolation after Sajid Javid’s Covid diagnosis. A friend of mine did manage to celebrate yesterday, by having an eight-hour lunch at Soho House. This demonstrates admirable spirit and might have been something I would have done if I wasn’t broke. I did do a bit of indoor drinking but that wasn’t a celebration, merely business as usual. Only the ferocious heat seemed different. Anyway, what are we supposed to be drinking to? Celebrating ‘freedom’ from a contagious virus that is not fully understood is so idiotic that one winces and wonder what it says about the state of the nation. I don’t think anyone ever waved a flag to declare that the Spanish Flu was now over and we could all have a party. Perhaps the end of the Black Death was marked with the odd roast swan or two, easier to poach in the de-populated countryside than before. In any case the Brexit mess is the very definition of unfinished business, so Johnson’s ‘Churchillian’ speech would have gone down as yet another national embarrassment. (To paraphrase the late Artist Formerly Known As Prince, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1938 …’)
Recent parallels being of limited use (after all, ‘you can’t catch the Blitz‘) I consulted W.G. Bell’s account of the Great Plague of London in search of historical resonance for the present moment. (I’ve written about The Plague before, at the start of the Great Covid.) Bell marks the official end of the Plague with the King’s return to London. The Plague had started in the spring and Charles II and his court abandoned London in July. Administration of the city was left to George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, a tough but efficient soldier who had played a vital role in Charles’s restoration. The contagion raged through the hot summer months but the infection was checked by a cold winter and Charles made his royal return to Whitehall Palace on 1st February. But whilst the Plague might have receded from the commercial and fashionable areas of town it still lurked in less salubrious corners. The first four months of 1666 saw 781 Plague deaths reported in the Bills of Mortality and the true number was certainly higher than that. There was alarm in Whitehall Palace in April when the king’s ‘closet keeper’, Tom Chiffinch, died suddenly of the ‘pestilence’, less than twenty-four hours after he was reported to be cheerfully playing backgammon (but at least he got to be buried in Westminster Abbey). There were fears of the Plague returning at full strength but it petered out in the capital – although towns like Deal, Colchester, Norwich and Cambridge suffered terrible outbreaks in 1666. (And then there is the heroic story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.) The official total of Plague victims was 68,596. Bell extrapolates that if allowance is made for error, lack of reporting and concealment, the true number is in the vicinity of 110,000; he goes on to calculate that, beyond the wealthy who had fled the city, about one in three of London’s population died from the disease.
So where does this get us, exactly? Dominic Cummings is all over the news today, as he is giving his first broadcast interview to Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC. It appears that one of his claims is that Boris Johnson resisted a second national coronavirus lockdown because he believed those dying were ‘essentially all over 80‘. Johnson is also reported as denying that the NHS was overwhelmed. Cummings is backing up his claims with WhatsApp messages purporting to be from Johnson, who he accuses of ‘putting his own political interests ahead of people’s lives‘. Cummings is, of course, the slipperiest of slippery operators, who spent a significant portion of last summer smirking his way past accusations that he had himself had breached lockdown for trivial reasons (at a time when families were prevented from seeing each other by Covid restrictions, when family members were unable to say goodbye to mortally sick relatives , etc. etc.) And he was all over Brexit, let’s not forget that. But he was at the centre of government and, if he is dishing the goods on his former boss now, it seems congruent with the culture at the top. Can someone have social immunity from a disease? In his history of the Plague, W.G. Bell pointedly notes that: ‘No single gap was made by the Plague in the ranks of statesmen; no member of Lords or Commons is returned dead by Plague. […] I have not found that a magistrate succumbed to the Plague. The Court and the professional classes, the big financiers […] who assisted King Charles in his often desperate need for money, the wealthier London merchants and tradesmen – all returned to London to take up the broken thread of their affairs. Yet there were one hundred thousand dead. To these others the Plague had been an inconvenience, a monetary loss, no more. […] It had been ‘the poore’s Plague.”
It would be tempting to compare Johnson to Charles II – the foppishness, the entitlement, the sleaze, the girls, etc. – but at least Charles knew his limitations and was smart enough to delegate Plague command to the very capable Albemarle. And, of course, Charles was a monarch rather than a politician, someone who was lumbered with his dynastic legacy and whose obligations were pre-destined. (I’m not going to get into an argument about the Restoration now, we can do that another time.) He wasn’t a career politician or an opportunistic chancer whose default setting is to treat national leadership as a branch of the entertainment business. Cummings also claims that Johnson had to be stopped from meeting with the Queen early in the pandemic, when official advice was to avoid unnecessary contact, especially with the elderly, amidst signs that Covid-19 was already spreading in Downing Street. This is where we enter a level of reality that is beyond satire – although one could see this scenario work in the format of a situation comedy. This is political history as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, with Dominic Cummings as Sid James, Sajid Javid as Bill Kerr, and Johnson, of course, as ‘the lad himself’. In this episode the Queen plays herself, although we only hear her talking to her corgis. Waiting outside, in a Buckingham Palace ante-room, Hancock tousles his hair to achieve a look of endearing boyishness as Sid tries to persuade him that passing on a deadly virus to HMQ might be a bad look with the electorate. Then his phone rings: it’s Bill. ‘Tub? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news …’
(Priti Patel as Hattie Jacques? Discuss.)
Dominic Cummings’s interview with Laura Keunssberg is on BBC2 at 7pm tonight.